At Fairware, we care deeply about our supply chain and sustainability, issues that affect us all and stretch across the globe. We also believe it's important to be involved in our local community. Our office is located close to the Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighbourhood in Canada, which struggles with poverty and the opioid crisis.
Almost 10 years ago, a friend asked if we could help print some t-shirts for a fundraiser for the Vancouver Street Soccer League, (VSSL) an organization that utilizes the power of sport to inspire and uplift marginalized people. At the time we didn’t have much of a donation budget, so we pulled together random t-shirt samples we had kicking around and printed them up.
That first run of t-shirts was the beginning of a long relationship for Fairware, and a personal one for me. Fairware has continued to donate t-shirts and uniforms to the league (and they're all the same colour now!). We also collect all our samples at year end and use them as part of the Christmas gifts for players and their families.
As I got to know the organization more, I was both impressed and inspired by how something relatively simple could have such a profound impact on people’s lives. The VSSL is a non-profit, volunteer-run organization which provides a regular and reliable place to play soccer, talk and share a meal. There is no permanent funding, all funding comes through donations.
I joined the Board in 2013 and am currently in my second year as President. Being a part of the VSSL has helped me understand and that having a positive impact on one person at a time is as important as large scale initiatives. At times I have been overwhelmed by the gravity and severity of issues that need solving. At the VSSL, I have settled into a role of contributing to a small community group with a huge impact. I'm also thrilled that two people from Fairware have joined ranks, David on the board as treasurer and Charles as a volunteer coach.
We reach out to individuals who have been homeless, are currently homeless, or are at risk of homelessness, as well as those who or are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. These issues are addressed through inclusivity and soccer and a belief that we can enhance our lives through the principles of Fair Play, Community Building, Supportive Partnerships, and Health and Safety. We have two practices/drop-ins per week, rain, shine or snow, we never cancel. We provide equipment, gear and food after the games are finished.
I have many stories, all with similar themes. Last year one player told me his story: how he immigrated to Canada and for a number of years was doing very well. For reasons he didn’t elaborate on, he lost his everything. He arrived in Vancouver with nothing, became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and attempted suicide four times. One day he was out walking and saw us at the field, noticed there was equipment, and asked if he could join. That was over two years ago and he now is off substances, works full time and says that VSSL is his family. It has become a strong and reliable community for many folks who are disconnected from their families. Of course, not every story is like that as for many there is so much to overcome. Regardless, we have a strong core of players that are committed, and we have not had one overdose in a city that saw over 350 overdose deaths in 2017.
As spring approaches, VSSL gears up for our biggest undertaking of the year. Players look forward to June Sports, (video) an Indigenous soccer tournament, all year and this will be my third time on the trip. We take a group of 25 players and volunteers to a remote First Nations Community in British Columbia, camp and play in a competitive tournament and participate in celebrations and ceremonies.
About four years ago, we began employing players from VSSL to work at Fairware, which opened my eyes to different ways of hiring, understanding there are lots of folks out there who are willing and able to work but may not have access or support to enter the workforce. While there have been challenges, we have learned a lot and this knowledge has driven the creation of a social hiring policy at Fairware.
Even as a small business, we can find ways to have impact on our community, including economically. It's been a great experience and it all started with printing up a bunch of leftover sample t-shirts.
Sarah White is the co-founder and COO of Fairware, a distributor based in Vancouver, Canada that provides sustainability and ethically sourced merchandise change makers across North America. Her day-to-day involves systems, human resources, project management and making sure Fairware’s culture of humour, generosity and curiosity is alive and well. She is involved in driving social change in the local B Corp community, as president of Vancouver Street Soccer League, and organization that utilizes the power of sport to uplift marginalized people; and as a member of the Presidents Group , a network of business leaders championing more accessible, inclusive workplaces.